For their first-ever aerial battle, Sam reflected, it was going pretty well.
He zoomed around a squadron of alien robot things, firing as he went and sending two of them sputtering and flaming to the rocky ground far below, and whooped in excitement.
Vision and Colonel Rhodes were carving through the robot forces above the trees to his right. Steve and Wanda were on the ground, Steve flinging his shield at the robots Wanda pulled in toward them. They were outnumbered, and arguably outgunned, each robot equipped with shoulder weapons that shot what looked like lasers, but they were holding their own. It was exhilarating. It was what being an Avenger was all about. It was—
A bolt of bright light hit Steve and he went down hard.
Sam fired at the robots on his tail, knocking three out of the sky before swooping around to check on Cap. He was staggering to his feet already and Sam breathed a sigh of relief, asking into the comm, “All right there, Cap?”
“Fine,” Steve responded, sounding winded and pained. He paused to hurl his shield at an approaching robot, before adding, “Keep focused on the job, don’t worry about me.”
“Keeping you out of trouble is half my job these days,” Sam grumbled, banking sharply to dodge a blast from a robot and retuning one of his own.
Steve chucked. “If that’s what you—argh!” He folded over suddenly, dropping to his hands and knees. There was nothing but static over the intercom.
“Cap? Cap? Steve!” Sam said, pulling into a dive as Steve collapsed to the rocky ground, curling in on himself. It didn’t make sense. He’d gotten up, he’d been fine—except Sam knew all too well that some injuries didn’t rear up until later, until after you thought you were okay. Hell, he’d seen people get up with half their skull smashed in, not even realizing it until they collapsed over dead. He focused on pulling out of the dive, the sliding into the mental autopilot required for the technical maneuver. There was no point in imagining the worst.
Somehow, Sam had forgotten how hard it was to go into a fight with friends by your side. Somehow.
“Falcon, what is going on down there?” Rhodes called over the intercom, high above, busy shooting rockets, repulsors, and God knew what else at a dozen robots surrounding him.
Sam touched down, stumbling a little at the landing, then dropping to his knees beside Steve as his wings retracted. Wanda threw a red shimmering shield up over both of them. She was getting better at controlling it. Good.
Less good was Steve writhing in obvious pain, jaw clenched tightly and hands pulling up to his head. Sam put a hand on his shoulder, hoping to still him enough to ask or see what was wrong, but pulled it away immediately. The muscles under Steve’s suit were positively jumping, seizing and spasming uncontrollably. No wonder he looked like he was in agony. What the hell had they hit him with? As Steve jerked forward, Sam could see a bad burn scored into the back of his shoulder, the skin red and blistered, but it didn’t fit. Even a bad one shouldn’t make Steve do that.
Sam had opened his mouth to appraise Rhodes of the situation over the comm when Steve gave a mighty jerk, his knees knifing almost all the way up to his stomach. And then he started shrinking. There was no other word for it. His chest and limbs pulled in tighter and closer and the muscle was disappearing rapidly, his suit seeming to deflate before Steve’s eyes.
Twenty seconds later, the man lying in front of Sam was one he’d only seen in old, grainy photographs. In person he looked unimaginably frail, almost childlike, with pale, almost translucent skin pulled tightly over his cheekbones. He was swimming in Cap’s uniform, groaning fitfully, his eyes fluttering. The blistered edge of the burn was still visible on his bony shoulder through the tear in his now-baggy uniform.
Sam hit the comm button. “War Machine, the situation is—not good. Cap’s small again, as in, pre-serum small. And he’s hurt. Recommend I get him the hell out of here.”
“Do it. We can finish them,” Rhodes said, taking surprisingly little time to process the information that was still boggling Sam’s mind despite the fact that he was staring right at it. His respect for the older man ratcheted up a notch.
“You got it,” Sam said, and scooped Steve up in his arms. It was like picking up his ten-year-old niece, the man weighed so little. He tried not to think too hard about that as he rocketed into the air again.
As soon as they were outside Wanda’s shield the robots were on his tail again, but he flew a zigzagging course through the trees that sent most of them skittering off in search of easier prey, while Vision appeared somewhere above him to use his head beam to cut the rest in half. Not for the first time Sam found himself idly thinking that it would be really great to have one of those.
Steve stirred, his eyes opening and then closing again at the rush of air. He coughed, instinctively clutching tighter to Sam at the sight of the ground rushing by far below.
“Just hang on,” Sam yelled over the beating of the wind. He was jetting as fast as he safely could over the trees now that they were alone.
“What happened?” Steve yelled back, coughing as he failed to draw air against the headwind. He had to bury his head in Sam’s chest to catch his breath.
“You got hit. I’m taking you to safety,” Sam said. They’d already covered several miles. The robots had appeared out of nowhere above the Canadian wilderness. Poor planning on the robots’ part, maybe, if they were aiming for world domination. It also meant the nearest hospital was about 50 miles of unpaved wilderness away.
Steve was shaking his head, but with his face still pressed against Sam’s chest he couldn’t make out his expression. “The fight—they need—“ he broke off into another fit of coughing.
“They’re fine,” Sam said loudly, a new burst of adrenaline surging through him as Steve shuddered in his arms. “Colonel’s in charge, like we planned, and he’s got everything under control. Now just trust me and stop trying to talk.”
For a moment Steve seemed ready to comply, then he went rigid. “Sam!”
“What now—” Sam stared to say, then felt a jolt of energy catch him squarely in in the flank like someone had just him with a two-by-four. It knocked him sideways, far off his trajectory, and for a horrible moment he was spinning, his left arm seizing up, and Steve was dropping out of his grip and hurtling toward the ground through the trees.
“No, no, NO!” Sam yelled. But by the time he had righted himself Steve had disappeared into the foliage and all he could see was Riley falling and this couldn’t end this way, it couldn’t. And then his wings were shorting too, the jet pack sputtering and dropping him several feet, sending his stomach into his throat like a roller coaster gone wrong. He aimed up at the rogue robot and fired, but couldn’t see if he’d made a hit as another sputter sent him surging down past the tree line.
He hit the grounder harder than he liked, his ankle twisting under him, but pushed himself up with little thought to the pain. His heart hammered in his chest as he spun around, searching for the bright blue of Steve’s uniform. Each second felt like an eternity, his horror strangely at odds with the gentle, sun-dappled forest landscape around him. Finally he spotted the uniform nestled in the lower branches of a tree some hundred yards again and jogged toward it, the rushing in his ears almost as loud as the wind had had been while he was flying. Two thoughts tumbled through his mind. One was Steve. The other was not again.
Steve was draped over a thick branch maybe five feet off the ground, covered in scrapes and scratches and bruises. His face was hidden by the angle. Sam steeled himself and approached, hating what he knew he’d find.
Steve’s eyes were closed, a long scrape running along his cheek and bleeding down his face. Sam pressed two fingers to his jugular, and prayed like he hadn’t since he was a little boy.
There was a heartbeat. Faster than he might have liked, but steady. Sam could have melted in relief right there, but Steve was far from out of the woods, the unintended pun bringing with it a momentary urge to laugh uncontrollably, which he did not give in to. He eased Steve’s small, frail body into his arms, and laid him on the ground. Under normal circumstances moving someone who had just fallen thirty feet was a definite no-no, but this hardly qualified as normal.
Steve groaned weakly as Sam set him down and stripped off the baggy uniform to better assess the situation. Steve’s right arm was clearly broken, the thin limb sporting a second joint between his shoulder and elbow. Ribs on one side were in bad shape, the unnatural depression visible under Steve’s skin. There was a long, deep gash running down his thigh and bleeding heavily. Another crossing his stomach.
And that was only what he could see. Spinal damage, or internal injuries, were always a possibility.
Sam sat back, forcing himself to breathe, to push thoughts of last time out of his mind. The situation had gone bad. He had to get Steve, this tiny, frail version of his friend, to safety. It was lucky enough that Steve was still alive. Most likely, being as small as he was had helped him—the taller branches had probably broken his fall.
Steve coughed, the noise jerking Sam back to his side. His eyes fluttered, opened, and finally focused on Sam, searching for an explanation. Another miracle.
“We got hit,” Sam said, forcing the anguish out of his own voice. “I dropped you. I’m sorry.” Took a deep breath, forced himself not to wallow. “I need you to tell me what you feel right now. Can you move your arms, legs? Any serious pain inside that I should know about?”
“I… don’t think so,” Steve said roughly, his face pulling into a grimace. “I mean. I can move. Doesn’t feel like internal injuries. Hard to… hard to tell.” He broke off coughing, his face twisting in a horrible grimace as his damaged ribs spasmed.
It was hard to feel overly relieved.
“Where…where are we?” Steve said, trying to push himself up but freezing with a hiss of pain through his teeth. Sam pressed him gently back down. His hand seemed to cover Steve’s entire bony shoulder and he had to force back another wave of horror. He’d dropped Steve, when Steve was clearly in no condition to be dropped. At least with Riley, as horrible as it had been, it hadn’t been quite so directly his fault.
“’Bout ten miles from the nearest town,” Sam said. Twelve, to be exact, according to the GPS on his wrist. “My wings cut out.”
A cursory examination revealed a smoking hole in the side of the jet pack’s tank, where the robot’s energy bolt had apparently glanced off Sam’s suit and slammed into the device. It wouldn’t even turn on.
“What happened to the robot?” Steve asked, glancing around. His voice was shaky but if Sam closed his eyes it would be easy to imagine that it was still coming from a full-sized Captain America. Funny, that, he noted distantly. He’d always imagined that the skinny kid he’d seen in pictures would have spoken with a skinnier-sounding voice.
“Must’ve hit it,” Sam said.
“Communications?” Steve asked, then coughed again.
Sam shook his head. “No cell service out here. Radio is shot too, it needs power from the wings.”
Steve’s eyes closed for a moment in obvious disappointment, but he looked at Sam again in determination. “You’ll have to hike out of here.”
“Not sure how I feel about leaving you,” Sam said, though he’d been arriving at a similar conclusion. “You’re hurt, bad, and can we even talk about the fact that you’re a tiny guy again?”
“That I noticed,” Steve said a little sardonically, despite the agony he had to be in. “It felt—it was like going through the transformation all over again.”
“We’ll have to assume you’re going to stay this way, then,” Sam said.
A flash of horror crossed Steve’s face before it was subsumed again by another grimace. He breathed shallowly, eyes closing, then said, “I’ll be okay. I managed like this for twenty-five years…more or less. Just need to be patched up a little more than usual. Better you go. I’ll be fine a few hours. Really.”
“You’re in bad shape,” Sam said. Not that Steve needed the reminder.
Impatience flitted over Steve’s pained features. “One of us needs to get out. If you go, you can get help. I’ll be--” he coughed, grimaced, “I’ll be fine.”
Sam pressed his lips together, but couldn’t argue with that. Worry and guilt or no. “I’ll set your arm and everything before I go. I remember at least a little of my pararescue training, promise.”
He rarely carried more than he had to on missions—less weight made banking and maneuvering easier—but he had a compartment with a few first aid materials. Worth the extra weight, he’d thought, and thought right.
He helped Steve sit up, wincing in sympathy as Steve’s eyes squeezed shut and his face tightened in pain. Once Steve was leaning against a tree, breathing heavily through clenched teeth, he carefully set Steve’s arm and splinted it. Steve bit his lip hard enough to draw blood but didn’t make a sound. There wasn’t much he could do for the ribs, aside from wrapping them, but a couple of butterfly bandages took care of the gashes in Steve’s gut and legs, and he covered the burn on Steve’s back with gauze. When he was done with his ministrations he handed Steve a Tylenol with codeine. Not quite the heavy-duty stuff, but hopefully enough to keep him slightly more comfortable while Sam went to get help.
Steve took the pill but stared at it uncomprehendingly. “I can’t—” he started to say, then frowned.
“Gotta be the one upside of all this, right?” Sam said lightly, determined not to let Steve know about the guilt still gnawing away at his gut. “Drugs work again. Man, if you’re still tiny when you get healed up, I want to see you drunk.”
Rather than lightening the mood, however, the comment only made Steve’s face sour more. Probably at the idea of still being in his pre-serum body weeks from now, Sam realized, his gut clenching. Not his best call.
Steve popped the pill without another word and swallowed it dry, face pulled into another grimace, then tipped his head back to rest it against the tree trunk. He sharp chin jutted out and Sam was struck once again at just how frail he looked. It was a miracle Steve had ever survived all the legendary fights he’d lost in Brooklyn, let alone boot camp.
When he was satisfied that Steve was in better shape, Sam wrapped a remaining ace bandage around his own ankle, which was starting to swell and gave a twinge of pain every time he rotated his foot. He could feel Steve’s eyes on him the whole time.
“You’re hurt,” Steve said accusingly.
“It’s nothing,” Sam promised, securing the bandage and pulling his boot back on with only a minimal wince.
Steve sighed, then clenched his teeth again, his good hand traveling to his ribs. “Just… be careful, okay?”
Sam flashed him a smile. “Do I really need to tell you I’m always careful?”
Steve shook his head, something close to a smile forming on his narrow face.
A crash in the bushes beside them made them both jump, Sam shooting to his feet, ankle forgotten again.
It was a robot, the same one Sam had shot down and never expected to see again. Half of its body was gone, smoke oozing out from the broken circuitry, and it swayed drunkenly as it turned toward them…its shoulder weapon on and blinking and pointed right at Steve.
Steve reacted reflexively, grabbing for the nearest thing that resembled a shield (Sam’s jetpack) and trying to throw it between himself and Sam and the robot. But, for all he could see each step perfectly in his mind, for all he could normally have taken out the robot in a second, his right arm was useless, and he could barely budge the heavy contraption more than a foot, his ribs screaming in pain. He’d forgotten was it was to be so weak, so helpless. Adrenaline pumping through him, he scrabbled backward—
--and Sam was leaping through the air, catching the robot in a bodily tackle and shoving him away from Steve just as the robot’s weapon went off. The robot knocked off balance, the weapon scored a deep smoking line into the tree above his head.
As Sam grappled with the robot, Steve reached for the nearest machine pistol holstered in the EXO-7, grabbing it out with a shaking hand and pointing it at the robot. “Sam, get out of the way!”
“Trying,” Sam grunted, rolling off the robot, who immediately turned its weapon on him.
Steve fired, his arm shaking too much for good aim, but hitting something that made the robot go limp nonetheless.
Sam pushed himself to his feet to investigate, brushing twigs and loam off himself as he did. He seemed not much worse for the wear. “Thanks,” he said to Steve.
Steve dropped the gun, his arm going back to his side. His ribs were singing in pain and he had to fight the urge to cough, which he knew would only make it worse. As the adrenaline faded, his broken arm ached fiercely and the deep wounds in his thigh and gut throbbed at slightly different tenor, pulling at his concentration. He bit his lip, determined not to vocalize his pain. He was going to be enough of a burden on Sam, useless as he was. He had no doubt that Sam would do everything he could to help him, because Sam was just that kind of person, but he had no desire to make the job any harder.
“I don’t think it’s dead,” Sam said, leaning over the robot. He was breathing heavily himself. “Something’s still blinking. Not sure I want to touch it, though. Or even shoot it again. Might have a turn-back-on button.”
“Good point,” Steve said. He was better at modern technology, now, but robots seemed to be a step ahead of what most people were expected to know. Stark’s territory. He didn’t feel any more confident than Sam in deactivating the robot.
“Which means I can’t leave you here. Not if there’s a chance that thing is going to wake up,” Sam said, rubbing his jaw. “You’re not going to like this.”
“I’m not going to like what?” Steve said dully. Obviously, he’d have to hike out of the woods alongside Sam. Injuries aside, he could feel the gentle wheeze in his lungs that told him his God-given body just wasn’t up to the task. The burn of helpless frustration in his gut was familiar, but Steve couldn’t say he’d missed it.
“The fact that I’m going to carry you out of here,” Sam said.
Steve stiffened immediately, the burning in his gut turning hotter, telling him (like it always had) to insist on being treated like anyone else. No matter how foolish that might be. “I can make it on my own.”
Sam sighed, as if he had expected this. It almost made Steve want to back down. Almost made him feel bad for glowering at him.
“I know it’s not exactly manly,” Sam said in a diplomatic tone and giving Steve a look that could only be described as patient. Steve considered it his therapist expression and never liked when Sam pulled it out to use on him. “But if that thing wakes up, I don’t want to be anywhere near it. I don’t want you anywhere near it. I guarantee you I can move faster than you can. There’s no better option.”
Steve swallowed, already sick with embarrassment.
He had found that, most of the time, he cared very little what others thought of him. As long as he could respect himself, and feel confident in his choices, he felt little need to impress anyone else.
With a few exceptions. People who commanded Steve’s respect so thoroughly he couldn’t help but want them to see him as worthy of respect himself. Peggy had been one of them. Colonel Phillips another. Since waking up out of the ice, he’d met a few people who might have fit into that category, but none so much as Sam. Sam was the kind of person who made him want to be better.
And that made the thought of having to be hauled around like a sack of potatoes by him much harder to stomach. There was no chance that Sam would ever look at him the same way again.
On the other hand, Sam—pragmatic as always—was right.
“All right,” Steve said finally, and made himself choke out a, “thank you.”
Sam raised his eyebrow. “Uh huh. You can thank me when we’ve gotten the hell out of here.”
The logistics turned out to be harder than either of them had anticipated. A piggyback was awkward (well, more awkward than it would have been to begin with) with Steve’s arm in a sling, and wrapping his legs around Sam’s waist chafed the deep gouge in his leg and tore loose one of the butterfly bandages, setting his leg bleeding again. Bridal style was no more comfortable given the state of his ribs (not to mention his ego). After a bit of maneuvering, they’d found a more or less comfortable position, with Steve on Sam’s back, one arm wrapped over his shoulder. Sam insisted it was the best for him, too, since he was used to the weight of the jetpack, but Steve was too miserable in a sea of pain and shame to find much comfort in the thought.
Carrying Steve meant leaving behind most of their gear, though Sam held onto a compass, the first air kit, and every weapon he could strap onto himself. He was still limping, sent another pang of humiliated frustration through Steve. It wasn’t fair that Sam had to literally carry him when Sam himself was hurt. The fact that Sam hadn’t complained once sent another sickly curl of shame through him. He was worse than useless. He was a burden.
Sam set off at a quick pace. The jostling pace made Steve grit his teeth, each bump sending a new spike of agony through his injuries.
“You okay back there?” Sam asked him. Steve realized belatedly he’d hissed in pain as his broken arm had gotten bumped between Sam’s broad back and his own damaged ribs.
“I’m fine,” Steve said, feeling himself flush despite the pain. He’d grown so used to being strong and capable and healthy, able to withstand pain and hardship, to get up and keep going. Had grown self-righteous over his own grit and determination. Somewhere along the line he’d forgotten just how hard it could be, to be saddled with a body that couldn’t be trusted to do what you expected. Somehow he’d forgotten that for every fight he’d walked away from as a youth, every spell of asthma or bronchitis or palpitations he’d overcome, another had put him in bed for days. Made him dependent on his Ma and Bucky and everyone else. He hadn’t hated it any less then, but he’d accepted it. It was much harder to do that now. To go back.
The next two hours disappeared into a haze of pain as Steve fought to stay upright. It was embarrassing how difficult just that proved to be. Each step Sam took jostled his arm and ribs, making him fight back a cough, and the rough material of Sam’s suit at his hip chafed against the bandage on his leg. Sam kept up the conversation for a little while, asking Steve harmless questions about his life in Brooklyn, plans for training, movies he might want to see when they got back.
Despite Sam’s efforts, Steve found it hard to focus on anything but the constant throbbing ache in in his arm and chest or the burning in his leg and stomach. He gave Sam short answers until the questions died off, then concentrated on keeping his mouth shut. Not crying out or gasping even when Sam stumbled over a root and caught himself on a tree, nearly dropping Steve and jostling his injuries in the process.
It did make him pay a little more attention, though. There was no doubt that Sam’s limp had gotten worse. He felt a sick disappointment that he hadn’t even noticed until then.
The second time it happened, Sam couldn’t catch himself in time, and they both tumbled to the ground. Steve cried out involuntarily as his arm slammed against a protruding rock and for several moments saw nothing but white.
“You all right?” Sam asked, sounding breathless himself. He helped Steve into a sitting position and held him upright as Steve focused on not throwing up. Sam’s hand on his shoulder was steady and warm.
“I’ll be fine,” Steve lied though gritted teeth, breathing in carefully through his nose. The pain was ebbing, but slowly.
“Look, man, I’m really sorry,” Sam said. There was a bitterness in his voice that Steve recognized immediately. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Yes,” Steve ground out.
“I’m sorry,” Sam said again helplessly. Now that he wasn’t steadying Steve his hand was cupped around his own ankle.
“It’s fine,” Steve said. “But you’re not all right.”
There was a pause while Sam seemed to be processing all the possible meanings of this. Finally he said in a voice that was a little too close to his therapist voice (a close and unwanted companion of the therapist look) for comfort, “What do you mean, I’m not?”
“Your leg,” Steve said. Guilt rushed in as he spoke. Sam had been carrying him. He should have noticed. “You’re hurt worse than you were letting on. And it’s been getting worse.”
Sam grimaced, whether in pain or at Steve’s assessment, Steve wasn’t sure. “All right. It’s a little worse than I originally thought. Nothing I can’t handle, though.”
Steve gave him what Sam referred to as his Captain America Glare. It probably carried a bit less weight coming from his now very small frame, not to mention all the bruises that had probably blossomed over his face, but he gave it his best shot. Concern and disapproval all rolled up in one. “You dropped me.”
Sam flinched at the words like he’d been hit. “I know. I’m sorry.”
“We can’t be that far from the town,” Steve said. They’d been walking for hours, after all.
“I’m not leaving you,” Sam said stiffly. “Not after I—” He broke off to stare down at his feet.
“Then let me walk,” Steve said, a little confused at Sam’s response. It wasn’t as if it was Sam’s fault that he’d stumbled. Steve’s arm and ribs were still beyond painful, but the gash in his leg—all things considered—really wasn’t that bad. If Sam could carry him for hours with an injured ankle, Steve could make it the last few minutes on his own.
To prove his point, Steve climbed carefully to his feet. His injured leg throbbed, but it held, and he stared up at Sam (strange as that was) with determination.
Sam stood as well, hopping slightly on his injured ankle before settling into position and crossing his arms. Now that Steve was looking for it, it seemed obvious that Sam was barely able to put weight on the limb at all. That he’d been carrying Steve—even if it was only 94 pounds of him—was simply impressive. Still, Sam gazed back at Steve evenly, his face showing little expression. Then he said, “No.”
“No?” Steve echoed.
“No,” Sam said again more firmly. For a moment, his easy confidence warred with another emotion, but he seemed to shove it away. “I can do this. I have to do this.” He glanced down at the GPS on his wrist and said, “There’s two miles to go.”
“You don’t have to,” Steve said, still feeling as though he were missing something. “You got me this far. That’s great. I can walk the rest of the way.”
“Look,” Sam said again, his gaze dropping to the ground. “I already let you fall once today. Twice, I guess. It won’t happen again. I’m getting you out of here.”
Steve had opened his mouth to argue before the full meaning of the statement, and of Sam’s expression, hit him. Of course. Of course he felt responsible.
“What?” Sam said, and Steve realized he’d been staring at him for a few seconds too long.
“I understand,” Steve said simply.
“Understand what?” Sam said, irritation creeping into his tone.
“It’s not your fault. Any of this. There’s nothing you have to…make right.”
Sam paused for a long moment, still looking at the ground. “I almost got you killed. I had you up there and I dropped you.”
Steve shook his head. “That wasn’t your fault.”
Sam’s dark eyes met his. He looked simultaneously doubting and hopeful. “I don’t know what movie you were watching,” he said quietly, “but I had you in my arms and I let you fall. That’s on me. Just like… well, I guess you know.”
Steve rested a hand on his arm. For a moment they just stood there like that.
Then Sam let out a long, shaky breath. “This isn’t right, you know.”
Steve raised his eyebrows.
“You trying to make me feel better,” Sam clarified. “After I let you fall. Not to mention, you’re hurt, badly, and you’re all tiny. Pretty sure I’m supposed to be the one who’s there for you in all that.”
“That’s not your job,” Steve said seriously, echoing the words he remembered Sam saying in the battle, which felt like it had happened far more than a few hours earlier. His ribs and his arm and his head ached, and his leg and his gut throbbed, but it was easy to put them out of mind now. This was important and it seemed absurd that Sam didn’t realize this. “You’re my friend. My best friend, now.” He paused, and went on, “That means I care about you. Not just out there on the battlefield. I care about you. And I know what it’s like to lose someone like that. Going through it again, or almost—it’s terrible.”
“Oh,” Sam said, seemingly lost for words. “Well, uh. Thanks.”
“It’s not something you need to thank me for,” Steve said, squeezing his arm lightly. “Like I said. You’re my friend.”
Sam let out a deep breath, and returned a small smile. “Still. Thanks. I… that means a lot.”
Steve nodded, then let his hand drop. “So. Ready to get out of here?”
“Yeah,” Sam said, then looked worried again. “Are you sure you think you can make it on your own? I’m in much better shape than you are, sprained ankle or no.”
“I’m sure,” Steve said, more darkly than he’d meant to. He tried to lighten his tone when he said, “I think I’ve been enough of a burden for one day.”
Sam’s frown only deepened, and he stared at Steve with dark eyes. “Really?”
Steve let his confusion show on his face. “What do you mean, really?”
“After that whole speech. You’re going to give me the ‘I’m a burden’ line? You know it goes both ways, don’t you? This whole being friends thing.”
“Of course. I’ve always been able to come to you for help,” Steve said.
Sam offered him another smile. “That’s different, though, isn’t it.”
Steve shrugged his good shoulder slightly. Sam had a way of seeming like he could see right into a person, another of his counseling skills, which Steve found extremely commendable except when Sam was doing it to him.
“You’re not coming to me for anything,” Sam explained, his soft smile turning into the slight smirk of see-I-know-read-you-right. “Normally, you’re the one calling the shots. Coming to me for backup when you think it’s time. This time…you don’t have a choice. You’re stuck relying on me when you want to be the strong one, and you hate that.”
Steve said nothing, a new kind of shame crawling up his cheeks. Sam would tell anyone, and sometimes did while shooting at them, that he was no one’s sidekick. But implied in his words was an acknowledgement that Steve saw him that way. Someone to rely on when he deigned it appropriate. A friend, but not an equal. And it was a testament to Sam’s character that he’d never complained about that either.
“Steve?” Sam said, looking worried again. “All I’m saying is you’re not a burden. As much as you might feel like one, being the one who’d lose the bench press contest for once.”
“You’re right,” Steve said, forcing himself to give a slight smile of his own. “And for what it’s worth, I’m sorry too.”
“Nothing to be sorry for,” Sam said, though his tone was warmer than it had been before. “I knew what I was getting into when I signed up to be Captain America’s best friend.”
“Well, I’m not Captain America now,” Steve sighed, before realizing that he was falling into the same self-pity that Sam had already seen too much of. “But I am ready to get out of here.”
“Fine by me,” Sam said, testing his ankle again. He winced slightly, and it was obvious that standing around had done little to help it. Still, he seemed unable to stop himself from asking, “Are you sure about this? I got you this far. It’s another mile or two, tops.”
Steve opened his mouth to answer, and instead stared in horror as a bolt of energy flew through the trees above them and hit Sam square in the chest, knocking him back into the undergrowth.
The robot followed half a second later, sparking and lopsided but no less deadly as it descended slowly to the forest floor.
Sam was splayed out on his back feet away from him, stunned or unconscious. Steve lunged for the gun still holstered against his leg. He was still clumsy and weak but he was expecting that now, and used his knees to break his fall while tugging the heavy weapon from its holster with his good hand. The robot was looming over them now. Its weapon swiveled toward Steve but he threw himself to the rock-strewn ground and the bolt sailed over him. For a moment the pain of his arm and ribs impacting the unyielding ground whited out his vision again but he shoved himself up anyway, aiming at the blur of the robot and firing again and again.
The shots rang out loud in the quiet words, sending birds flapping away far above, but this time the robot slammed to the ground, all of its lights going dark.
Steve collapsed backward, dropping the gun to cradle his ribs and breathing shallowly against the pain that reverberated through his chest and down his arm. As the rush of adrenaline faded, he felt light-headed. The wound in his gut had started bleeding again, soaking through the bandage Sam had wrapped around it earlier.
He ignored all of those things to grit his teeth, push himself up and go to Sam’s side. Sam was still unmoving, his eyes closed and his face ashen. The robot’s energy bolt had hit him squarely in the sternum, and had blown open a wide hole in the front of his suit. The skin underneath looked scorched and painful, pulling tight with every breath.
“Sam?” Steve asked worriedly, leaning over him despite the throbbing ache in his chest.
Sam didn’t stir. He also didn’t stir when Steve said his name several more times, patted his face, or shook him gently.
Steve swore softly under his breath, rocking back on his heels. His mind was already settling into its familiar crisis mode, emotions receding as the very real question of what next came to the fore.
Sam needed help. He couldn’t move him, probably shouldn’t even if he could. The robot was down for good this time, as far as he could tell (at the very least, the red light wasn’t blinking anymore). That meant he had to get help and bring it back. There were no other options.
Well, Sam had already carried him the first ten miles. For Sam’s sake, he could make it another two.
He marked down the coordinates on Sam’s GPS, then wrapped it around his own wrist. Even with the strap tightened as small as it could get, it hung loosely and heavily off his bony wrist. He climbed to his feet. The movement sent a spasm of pain through his ribs that turned into a cough, and he ended up bracing himself on his knees for several long seconds, trying to catch his breath and not give in to the agony that shot through his side and arm with each paroxysm. When he straightened, pain stabbed through his chest and each breath wheezed in his throat. Because of course. The exertion of fighting in the cool Canadian air had triggered his asthma.
He ignored it, straightened up, and limped forward, glancing back only once at Sam’s still body. Sam had gotten him this far. He wasn’t going to let him down now, no matter how much his weak body railed at him.
It wasn’t easy going through the wild forest floor, navigating around loose rocks and roots and bushes and fallen logs. He stumbled more than once, and a few times had to backtrack when his path brought him to too steep a ravine or a snarl of fallen tree trunks. That Sam had traversed ten miles of forest, on a sprained ankle with Steve on his back, sent both admiration and a new wave of guilt spiraling through him. Whatever Sam said, Steve was a burden like this.
After what felt like years, but the timer on the watch told him had been about an hour, he stumbled out of the deep woods onto a gravel road, and dropped to his knees, wheezing. The pain in his arm and side and gut and leg was savage, and he felt dizzy and weak. The cut on his stomach hadn’t stopped bleeding, while the one on his leg had started up, painting his loose rolled-up uniform pants with dark blood.
It didn’t matter. He clenched his fists and pushed himself back to his feet to stagger along the road toward the town, his breath harsh in his ears.
He almost didn’t notice the roaring of the truck engine at first, lost as he was in a sea of pain. It came up behind him, a heavy blue pickup truck with its window rolled down. The man in the drivers’ seat asked him a question, and Steve stared blearily at him for several minutes before registering that the question had been in French. Quebec. Right.
He answered clumsily with what he remembered of the language from the war, explaining who he was and that he needed help for his friend at these coordinates. Then he might have passed out. The next thing he knew there were sirens, and voices, and then everything went dark again.
For their first aerial mission, Sam reflected, it really hadn’t gone so well. He’d awoken in a sterile SHIELD hospital bed with an IV in his arm, bandages wrapped around half his chest and a brace on his ankle. A nurse told him he’d been unconscious for nearly a day from an energy burst they’d never seen before. It was still dissipating, she said, though they energy samples of his cells.
He didn’t really care.
“Where’s Cap?” he asked.
The relief he felt when he found out that Steve was not only alive, but going to be okay, nearly made him pass out again. From there he managed to finagle a pair of crutches and permission to leave from the hospital staff, who disapproved but were used to dealing with superheroes and SHIELD agents and didn’t put up too much of a fight. His ankle throbbed and using the crutches stretched his burned skin painfully but he ignored it, clomping down the hall to Steve’s room like he was on a mission.
Even in the short time since he’d been awake, he hadn’t been able to stop seeing it—Steve’s small form tumbling down into the trees, too far and too fast, like Sam was just up there to watch. Seeing Steve alive and well wouldn’t make that go away (and how many times had he reminded traumatized vets at the VA of just that?) but at least it could assuage some of the irrational worry still gnawing at his gut.
He found Steve laid out on the hospital bed, looking somehow even frailer and smaller than he had in the forest. He was pale and bruised, a heavy cast surrounding his arm and bandages around his ribs that disappeared into the pale blue blanket pulled up around him. His head was turned away from the door, angular chin jutting. There was, again, something childlike about him. Something vulnerable.
And Sam had dropped him.
Sam crutched hesitantly closer.
Steve stirred, turning his head on his skinny neck toward Sam. He blinked a few times and murmured hoarsely, “Sam.”
Sam flashed a smile he wasn’t entirely feeling and said, “It’s good to see you.”
“You too,” Steve said breathily, gave a weak cough, and frowned. “Sorry. Talking’s not…really easy right now.”
“I’ll keep this short, then,” Sam said. “Just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
He could still see Steve tumbling down into the trees. Though he’d seen how badly Steve was hurt in the woods—had seen every wince and grimace—there was still something about seeing someone hooked up to all those hospital machines that made it seem that much worse. Especially considering how much Steve must have needed them when they’d been back there, and Sam hadn’t even been able to get him out.
“I’ll be fine,” Steve said softly, with a big smile. “They said the robot’s energy should wear off in a day or two. I’ll be back to normal.”
“That’s great,” Sam said sincerely, returning the smile with a slightly less forced one of his own. “Still. I’m sorry.”
“Sam,” Steve admonished.
“I am,” Sam said. Of course Steve wouldn’t hold any of it against him, because Steve was like that. It didn’t mean he shouldn’t have done better. “I messed up, and you had to pay for it. That’s on me.”
“You saved my life,” Steve said, gazing up at him with clear blue eyes. No doubt they had him on a good amount of drugs, but he seemed as clear and sober as Sam had ever seen him. “A couple times, I’m pretty sure. I wouldn’t have made it ten miles on my own. I barely made it the last two. And I know it wasn’t easy for you.” He broke off for a moment, a little winded.
“I mean it,” Steve said slowly. “What you did back there… you got me out. Even though I fell, you saved me.”
Sam nodded, the full meaning of Steve’s words sinking in slowly, bringing with them a slight warmth of relief. He’d probably still see Steve tumbling into the trees for a lot of nights to come, but know that Steve was okay and that he understood, that was something. “Thanks,” he said simply.
“Friends, right?” Steve said.
“For what it’s worth, you saved me too. Little guy or not,” Sam said.
Steve nodded. For a moment Sam could feel a strange sort of understanding flowing between them. For all they’d both faced their nightmares—both faced different kinds of helplessness—in the end they’d gotten though it, together.
“Not friends,” Sam said. Steve’s face scrunched into the start of a frown, but Sam cut him off. “Not friends. Brothers.”